LSU and the case of the disappearing satellite camp invites

One by one, they were asked to leave the state of Louisiana before they even arrived. Football coaches from Texas, Texas A&M, Arkansas and Houston all planned to work satellite camps at Southeastern Louisiana University this summer. They were all unceremoniously disinvited last week. Tulane had announced it would work a camp with the Michigan staff. Disinvited, too.

If the coaches were confused, clarity came quickly. Tulane soon found a replacement for Michigan: LSU. And Southeastern Louisiana announced one new partner after severing ties with those A-list schools: Yes, also LSU.

The Louisiana schools are dancing around their reasons for kicking the out-of-state schools out of their camps. But they appeared to succumb to pressure from LSU, which has financial and political power in its state that few schools in the country can match. As one college official noted: “LSU's influence is undeniable.”

Satellite camps allow college coaches to work with and evaluate high school prospects, building relationships in areas outside their geographic footprint. New LSU coach Ed Orgeron does not want to lose his state's best players to Texas or Michigan.

Orgeron told Sports Illustrated that LSU did not push Southeastern Louisiana or Tulane to disinvite other staffs: “No. No. This was us keeping Louisiana together.” He blamed LSU waiting to plan camps until after spring ball for the sudden interest in working with Tulane and Southeastern Louisiana. But he did also say, “Protecting the state of Louisiana is always going to be my job as the coach of LSU.”

Nobody is weeping for Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, Texas coach Tom Herman or Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, and nobody should. But the losers in this whole affair are prospects in Louisiana, especially those who can't afford to traverse the country to attend camps. Some of them may have earned scholarships to Texas, Michigan, Arkansas or Houston.

If LSU pressured Tulane and Southeastern Louisiana to change plans, that did not violate any NCAA rules. And LSU is certainly not the only school trying to use satellite camps to create a recruiting monopoly. Michigan wanted to send its staff to a camp hosted by North Texas this year and was told not to come. No reason was given, but Oklahoma is the headliner there. (Oregon and Rice coaches will also attend.)

“It's definitely a strategy by several football factories to prevent competitors on their turf, the kids be darned,” Harbaugh said.

This is a new trend in college football. But it's really just a new version of an old story: The NCAA perceives it has a problem. The NCAA creates a rule to solve it. And the NCAA fails to realize that schools don't act in the NCAA's best interests—they act in their own.

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Harbaugh shook college football in the summer of 2015 with his ballyhooed “Summer Swarm” tour. He and the Michigan staff traveled around the country, working 11 camps in seven states over a nine-day period and making an impression on recruits. Harbaugh's staff followed up in 2016 with nearly 40 camps, including camps in American Samoa, Australia and Hawaii.

It was all legal, but it was also unprecedented, and many in the sport objected. Chatter about satellite camps became the soundtrack of the off-eason. The NCAA tried to clamp down on the satellite-camp phenomenon with a series of rules changes.

Now colleges can only host camps “on a school's campus or in facilities regularly used by the school for practice or competition,” meaning that, for example, Michigan can no longer host a camp in Texas. And college coaches may only work at camps for a total of 10 days per year, and those camps must be held on other college campuses. College coaches can no longer work high school camps.

If the NCAA was trying to limit the use of satellite camps for a recruiting advantage, the new rules actually had the opposite effect. Coaches quickly realized that there were not nearly as many campuses available to host camps—high schools were out, and colleges could not host camps away from home. Whoever controlled those campuses controlled the summer recruiting environment. The big schools hold leverage, as they draw the most prospects to their camps. The value of Southeastern having access to LSU's camps to offer second-tier prospects far outweighs any relationship with, say, Arkansas.

LSU does not officially have power over the camps at Tulane or Southeastern Louisiana. But those schools were apparently convinced that a good working relationship with the state's dominant program was in their own best interests.

On May 1, Tulane tweeted that Michigan's staff would work its camp on June 9. According to NCAA rules, Michigan was not allowed to announce anything, but an agreement was in place.

Two days later, Tulane contacted Michigan recruiting coordinator Cooper Petagna with a concern: Michigan had booked a camp in Tennessee the same day as Tulane's camp. Tulane needed to know by the end of the day if Harbaugh would be in New Orleans.

Harbaugh has often worked two camps in one day in the past. He says he has worked every camp that publicized his participation except one, when he had a conflict with a university regents meeting in Detroit. But Petagna told Tulane he would try to get absolute confirmation from Harbaugh as soon as possible.

At 7 p.m. that day, Tulane “said they were going in a different direction,” Petagna said. He called back that night with a promise that Harbaugh would be there. Tulane disinvited Michigan anyway.

Five days later, Tulane announced it would host LSU at its camp on June 16. LSU had been Tulane's first choice, but the Green Wave went to Michigan after they couldn't get a commitment from LSU. In local media, Orgeron has praised Tulane and coach Willie Fritz for “protecting the great state of Louisiana.”

Meanwhile, Southeastern Louisiana printed out fliers and publicized on its Website that it would be hosting a satellite camp with Louisiana Tech, Texas, Houston and Arkansas on June 8. Southeastern Louisiana also agreed to hold a camp with Texas A&M on June 11.

Within the past two weeks, Texas, Texas A&M, Houston and Arkansas were informed that they are no longer welcome to work camps in Louisiana. Louisiana Tech is now the only school affiliated with Southeastern Louisiana's June 8 camp. LSU has replaced Texas A&M on June 11.

Sports Illustrated reached out to Herman, Sumlin, Arkansas coach Bret Bielema and Houston coach Major Applewhite. All confirmed that Southeastern unexpectedly pulled their affiliation with the camp. They all also declined to comment further.

A staff member at one of the schools shut out of Louisiana summed it up this way: “The combination of LSU's pressure and the new NCAA rules not being able to have camps at anything other than a college campus has hampered everything.”

Southeastern Louisiana coach Ron Roberts told SI, “I don't think I'm going to be able to comment on any of that.” The school's AD, Jay Artigues, said, “The only thing I can tell you on it, I know every decision we make is in the best interest of Southeastern Louisiana. I'm going to do what's best for us.”

But what's best for them is not always obvious to outsiders. Southeastern Louisiana, a state school, relies on government funding. (Tulane is private.) It is not hard to imagine scenarios in which schools cave because they don't want to upset lawmakers or LSU athletic department officials that offer attractive scheduling options in many sports. (LSU is paying Southeastern $500,000, Artigues said, to play in Baton Rouge in football in 2018). Dr. Jim Henderson, president of the University of Louisiana system that oversees Southeastern, denied LSU attempted to exert political influence. “No call came through my office about the camps, expressing concern or urging us to take action,” he told SI.

By boxing out rivals from recruiting access to the talent-rich state, Orgeron appears to have succeeded in fulfilling a goal held by former LSU coach Les Miles. Last year, Miles told The (Baton Rouge) Advocate that he'd “hoist small caliber weapons” to keep schools out. (Miles was steamed last year when Tulane hosted Texas A&M).

It also doesn't take a geological dig to find the animosity between Texas and LSU. Less than two weeks ago, Texas flipped a highly regarded safety, Caden Sterns, from LSU. Nearly six months ago, Texas hired Herman after he'd flirted heavily with LSU. There's still a strong feeling of bitterness toward Herman from LSU officials because of the spurning. They promoted Orgeron from interim coach after Herman decided to go to Texas. (LSU athletic director Joe Alleva did not return a call seeking comment).

Harbaugh said he believes coaches should be able to work “as many [camps] as you can physically do. It's good for the student-athletes, good for their families, good for the game, good for the high schools.” He remembers working alongside coaches from other top schools in the last year. That will be a rarer occurrence.

If the NCAA had just left its rules alone, high school coaches say, it may have better served the people it claims to prioritize: the players.

Robert Valdez, who has coached nearly two decades in the state, is head coach at St. James (La.) High, a public school located about halfway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. He understands LSU's motives to keep rivals out of the state and others following their lead. But he says it's going to cause his players to have to spend more money to travel around to get noticed.

“A lot of these schools have fixed numbers of scholarships,” Valdez said. “We have thousands of kids jockeying for scholarships. The more variety of schools [evaluating them], the better. We promote fair market competition with consumerism in our economy. We're taking that away from the kids.”

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